Israel’s Military Inserted Into Political Debate Consuming the Country
Israeli Air Force F-15I Ra'am warplanes, part of IAF Squadron 69, in a photo taken in October, 2017. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

Israel’s Military Inserted Into Political Debate Consuming the Country

Israel Defense Forces reservists, including high-level fighter pilots, have threatened to not show up for training in protest over the government's judicial reform legislation

The debate over judicial reform legislation being advanced by the Israeli government has cut to the core of the country’s society. Former military officers who now serve in the Israel Defense Forces reserves have raised a red flag, warning that if the coalition proceeds with the controversial reforms they might not show up when called upon. As Israel is torn between those pushing for the reforms and those protesting against them, adding the military to the mix has taken the debate to a different level.

For many Israelis, military service is consensual and untouchable. The military has been guarded almost religiously above any political divides.

Israeli Jews are obligated by law to serve in the military after high school from 18 years of age. The IDF is a melting pot for many parts of society, not including Israeli Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews who are exempt from service. It is also considered a rite of passage for young Israelis, many of whom prepare meticulously for their service and use the skills they acquire to enter the civilian workforce.

Many of them believe that if the legislation is completed they will not be able to serve, so when are they expected to raise the red flag, before or after? Of course, the time is now.

In a highly fragmented society, with almost blanket conscription, keeping politics out of the military is not an easy task.

“To think that once you put a uniform on, you forget all the moral authorities that have influence in your life is an unrealistic fantasy,” according to Professor Udi Lebel of the School of Communication and the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. “Each group has a different moral authority that is stronger than the military one.”

Earlier this week, a letter signed by tens of reserve fighter pilots sent shockwaves through the country. In it, according to Israeli media reports, the pilots said they would not attend an upcoming training session, but would show up in order to engage in dialogue with their commanders about their stance.

“It is not their right to forewarn, it is their duty to do so,” said Guy Poran, a former Israeli Air Force pilot and one of the leaders of the pilots’ protest. “Many of them believe that if the legislation is completed they will not be able to serve, so when are they expected to raise the red flag, before or after? Of course, the time is now.”

The pilots, from one of the air force’s elite fighter jet units, are considered the cream of the crop of the IDF. Their obligatory service is far longer than the three years mandatory for men in other units. On average, reserve pilots train once a week and they exceed the amount of obligatory days for reserve duty, attending the extra training days on a volunteer basis.

“The refusal to serve threatens our basic existence,” said Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, speaking to soldiers at a border police military base on Monday. “Therefore, it should be forbidden among our ranks. Israeli society has always denounced this and sanctified the joint service in the Israel Defense Forces and security forces.”

According to Poran, the pilots are not refusing to serve, but reserve the right to not volunteer if the judicial reforms are completed.

“Many of the pilots are very concerned that the legislation will create a non-democratic state without a strong, independent judicial system and if that will happen, they will have a problem to continue to do our reserve service,” he said.

Fighter jet squadrons rely heavily on their volunteer reservists. In times of war, this is especially true.

Realizing the ramifications of the protest, Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Military Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi met with some of the reservists in an attempt to defuse the tension.

“This is a real danger to Israel’s security,” a statement released by Gallant after the meeting read. “We must ensure the IDF remains outside any disagreement and no protest against the government merits such action.”

Israeli media reported that Halevi warned Netanyahu that military capabilities could be harmed if the reservists continue their protests.

“The air force is a central player in the Israeli military,” said retired Brig. Gen. Amir Haskel. “Reservists are a very important part and they are a critical component not only quantitatively, but also in terms of the quality they bring with their extensive experience.”

“They are the heart of the air force,” he added.

This is why the pilot’s declared action put the discourse about the reforms and the protest well above the boiling point.

There was widespread criticism of the pilots in Israel and it marked a further deterioration in the language used by each side in the debate. A government minister called the pilots who signed the letter “wimps,” while another told them to “go to hell.”

“The IDF is the people’s army and I oppose any insubordination,” tweeted Opposition Leader Yair Lapid.

“The outcry demonstrates that the threat is successful, that a sensitive nerve was touched,” said Lebel. “The biggest threat to the society and to the IDF is that its image as a non-political, people’s army will be tarnished.”

Most women are exempt from reserve duty, while men are obligated for different periods of reserve duty until the age of 40, after which they can volunteer. Pilots, who are officers, report to reserve duty until the age of 45.

Haskel is a former senior officer in Israel’s air force. In recent years, he has led protests against Netanyahu, who is on trial on several corruption charges. Starting in 2020, those protests began small and grew. The current weekly protests over judicial reform, which gathered over 200,000 people last weekend, are much larger and draw a more diversified crowd.

“This is a totally different ball game. Now we are facing an intention to change the face of the country and turn it into a hollow democracy,” Haskel told The Media Line.

“The struggle is extremely fundamental but also asymmetrical. The coalition has far more power and at some point the opposition has no choice but to bring out the more significant tools that allow them to fight back,” Haskel said.

In recent days, there have been reports that the government is willing to discuss a compromise on the reforms. However, the coalition continues to plow ahead with the legislative process. The changes, which opponents say constitute a judicial “coup,” will give the ruling coalition greater power over the courts. Part of the plan grants the parliament the ability to override Supreme Court rulings with a simple majority. The judge selection committee will be dominated by politicians and judicial review over the legislature will be significantly limited.

In addition to a day of resistance planned for Thursday by several opposition groups, an organization of reservists is planning a flotilla on Israel’s coasts. It is another insertion of the military into the political debate.

“It is unrealistic to expect the reservists to stay out of the political debate,” said Poran. “They are citizens in this country and they are entitled to their own opinions. What are they supposed to do, keep their mouths shut?”

Until now, insubordination was aimed at preventing military actions. The issue at heart now is not in the playing field of the military at all and cannot be addressed by the military command.

The Israeli military has often needed to execute touchy political decisions. The disengagement from Gaza in 2005 saw calls from the right wing to soldiers to refuse to execute evacuation orders. Such orders, which also occur in illegal outposts in the West Bank, puts soldiers with a conflicting ideology in a difficult spot. The dilemma between personal ideology and following military orders is often hushed up in an attempt to keep the army out of the political discussion.

Yet, the current protest is unprecedented.

The army has managed rather successfully to maneuver between the different ideologies of its conscripts. From the vantage point of his years in political activism, Haskel believes the pilots protest will be a turning point in the turmoil Israel currently is experiencing. It could further entrench the coalition or push it toward compromise.

“Until now, insubordination was aimed at preventing military actions,” said Lebel. “The issue at heart now is not in the playing field of the military at all and cannot be addressed by the military command.”

Lapid was not the only one from the opposition to speak out against objection to military service. Many pointed out that Netanyahu’s political partners, especially the ultra-Orthodox Jews, are automatically exempt from conscription. In addition to the controversy regarding judicial reform, the pilots protest has reignited an age-old debate on that contentious exemption.

“They should try and find pilots from those parties, maybe they will be more obedient,” Poran said, defiantly.

Some of the current government ministers did not serve in the army. Ultra-Orthodox support for the judicial reforms comes largely as part of an attempt to secure the continuance of the exemption which the Supreme Court has ordered cancelled in the past.

“This is a coalition that relies on populations that do not serve in the army and their distance from the Israeli mainstream is great. This is also the part of society who wants the reforms in order to solidify that exact status,” said Lebel. “This combination has created the last straw which brought to the creation of an authentic coalition of protest.”

This protest is significantly fueling the opposition to the reforms, perhaps because it has been simmering under the surface for many years.

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